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Time catches up to 82-year-old, brash shareholder activist

Sun., July 15, 2012

Evelyn Y. Davis is the world’s most famous shareholder activist. She’s also the most outspoken, the most outrageous, the most intelligent, the most confident, the most charming.

Just ask her.

“There’s no other shareholder like me!” she declared in a recent interview.

For decades, Davis has been buying stock in big companies for the primary reason, it seems, of attending their annual meetings and turning them into her personal stage.

Simultaneously brash and flirty, she heckles CEOs, remarks on their handsomeness, yells at other shareholders and proclaims that she knows more than anyone else in the room.

So there was something missing this year when Davis didn’t show up at any company’s annual meeting. Not Bank of America. Not US Airways. Not Ford or Goldman Sachs or any of the dozens she usually attends.

Age has finally made her do what the most powerful CEOs in America couldn’t: Give it a rest.

“I’m not so young anymore,” said Davis, 82.

This is the first year she won’t publish “Highlights and Lowlights,” the newsletter in which since 1965 she has reported on company meetings and how she was treated at them, which reporters gave her the most coverage and anything else on her mind.

She peddles it for $600 a copy, minimum two copies, to the same CEOs she harangues.

Never one to doubt her own grandeur, she is fond of introducing herself as queen of the corporate jungle. The CEOs of JPMorgan Chase, Macy’s and Saks agreed that Davis brings entertainment value to shareholder meetings – comments they made to the Associated Press after she called and asked them to.

Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein, who has often found himself on the receiving end of an Evelyn Y. Davis tongue-lashing, presided over a calmer, quicker meeting this spring.

“Our annual meeting this year was shorter with less drama,” Blankfein said in a statement to the AP. “Without Evelyn, it just wasn’t the same.”

Other shareholders have varying reactions to her antic. Some applaud, some laugh, others jeer. To some of them, Davis is a champion of shareholder rights. To others, she’s annoying, even mean.

While some investors are scared to confront powerful executives, she is anything but. She asks pointed questions about their business decisions, and sometimes tells them they should resign in shame.

She advocates for lower CEO pay, term limits for board members and more disclosure on companies’ political spending – issues dear to most shareholder advocates.

Tact, however, is not her strong point.

She interrupts everyone, sitting at the front and yelling out questions that often have nothing to do with the topic being discussed. She tells other speakers they don’t know what they’re talking about. She implies that the best-looking male CEOs are in love with her.

Davis’ bully pulpit, the annual shareholder meeting, is the one time of year when CEOs of public companies have to face their shareholders, answer their questions and listen to their complaints. Davis’ critics – and there are many – say she makes a mockery of shareholder advocacy, grandstanding for attention more than talking about the issues. She was especially cheeky in her younger days. Like at the General Motors meeting in 1970, where she showed up in a bathing suit to make sure she wouldn’t get upstaged by Ralph Nader. (He didn’t show.) She wore hot pants to another meeting the next year, an ammunition bandolier to another.

At United Aircraft, she nominated Hank Aaron to the board. It was 1974, the day after he beat Babe Ruth’s home run record. Davis said she doesn’t remember doing that. (Aaron wasn’t elected.)

Davis was born to a wealthy family in Amsterdam in 1929, two months before the stock market crash pitched the U.S. into the Great Depression.

She survived a concentration camp in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia, a detail confirmed by the International Tracing Service, a respected archive of Holocaust-era documents. Davis moved to the Baltimore area after World War II with her father and began investing in the 1950s.

She is short and speaks loudly – or just shouts – in a heavy Dutch accent. Her hair and makeup are always in place, her suits impeccable. In a biography filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission when she was a panelist for a roundtable there on shareholder issues, she described herself as “a four times Divorcee with NO children.”

If executives are exasperated by her theatrics, they have yet to put a muzzle on her. Her access to them is uncanny. She calls them directly and often, and she can be fierce when she doesn’t get what she wants.

Terry Lundgren, the CEO of Macy’s, said that Davis always has “something interesting to say.”


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